Interview: Dr. Octagon

The year was 1996 and hip hop was in a transitional phase. Having found popularity amongst an increasingly diverse fanbase, the genre was encompassing a broader range of sounds and reflecting the varied tastes of its listeners. In the same year that Tupac and Dr. Dre rode the charts with ‘California Love’, The Fugees dropped The Score, and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. showed what was possible to achieve with samples and an MPC60. Amongst such an atmosphere another landmark album, Dr. Octagonecologyst, added its voice, taking hip hop again in a new direction, thanks to the abstract, character-driven lyrics of Kool Keith, the turntable skills of DJ QBert, and the moody production of Dan the Automator.

The record, credited to Dr. Octagon, established Kool Keith outside of his group the Ultramagnetic MCs and led to the Automator becoming an in-demand producer. Now 22 years later there comes a new album, Moosebumps: an exploration into modern day horripilation, an unlikely reunion that promises to revisit and update the Octagon vision with all three members returning to the fold.

“The reason we never did another record had to do with Keith. He’s kind of a free spirit kind of guy,” laughs the Automator, aka Daniel Nakamura. “Basically when he was ready to do it, he called to let me know he was serious. I started putting together some sketches, he came and stayed with me and we just worked on it. He did his lyric stuff in maybe a week or so and then I went and did the rest.”

One would imagine that Dr. Octagonecologyst would be an intimidating proposition to follow up, its liberal use of live instrumentation, horror-film-style sound effects, and the occasional bit of rock guitar or drum’n’bass beats making it both a product of its time and completely out of step with the world around it.

“The difference between that record and this was, when I did the first record it was fresh, I had never done anything like that,” says Nakamura. “I had never done distortion guitars for example. But now Dr. Octagon has an established style, so when I did the second record I was trying to figure out what I could [make] that was the re-do of what already happened but still was true to the Dr. Octagon nature. I guess it has more to do with judgement and feeling, I don’t know what is or what isn’t, I just know when I hear it.”

Prior to Dr. Octagon audiences had only heard Kool Keith’s fast paced vocals set against the boom-bap beats and James Brown samples of the Ultramagnetic MCs, whereas the woozy synths of tracks like ‘Halfsharkalligatorhalfman’ allowed him the space to truly stretch out vocally, a characteristic that continues on Moosebumps.

“I think I’m more aware of trying to leave space, so when I do a record now I do my best to leave what I can to the imagination,” says Nakamura. “I think as you grow to understand music, the greatest music is the music that’s not played, meaning the space you leave for the intent.”

The road to Moosebumps has had some unusual twists, with the record being labelled as ‘the true sequel’ for the reason that Kool Keith has put his name to two separate Octagon sequels in 2004 and 2006. Both albums seemed to be pieced together from half finished ideas and were met with muted critical reactions, and more importantly, were made with input from QBert or Nakamura.

“I don’t really care about that stuff, Keith is Keith,” says Nakamura. “Even the fake second record where some label gave him money, I’m not gonna stop a guy from making a few bucks. I never heard it but the guy called me up and asked me to mix it, and I said ‘No, this is not how an Octagon record gets made.’”

Happily, the new album has also resulted in Dr. Octagon becoming a live act for the first time, with all three members currently performing a string of dates across the US.

“We’ve done 20 or so shows,” says Nakamura. “It’ll be interesting to see how it is after the record comes out because the new songs, people don’t know ‘em so it’s always a little more complicated. And because they never got to see the first record toured—I don’t want to call them classics—but there’s a lot of classics on that first record as far as I’m concerned. If I was going to the show I’d want to hear ‘em, ya know what I mean?”

Originally published in Beat Magazine.

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